Resources at risk

Flight, film, and education inspire conservation action

October 1, 2012


Photography courtesy of CAVU

Less than a quarter mile out on final, the speed is gradually slowing through 60 knots indicated. David S. Smith, the hard-driving founder and president of the conservation group CAVU, has the Robertson STOL-equipped Cessna T206H perfectly set up for landing on what is arguably an airstrip in the Darién Gap area of eastern Panama.

The runway, such as it is, was hacked out of the bush some years ago. When it is maintained by the residents of the village that surrounds it, they do so using machetes. The runway surface may be rough and uneven, but it makes up for those flaws by being short. With obstructions.

As Smith continues to scrub off any airspeed above the bare minimum for close-in final, adjusting the descent angle with small power changes, one member of the video crew in the back has a camera out, pointed at the residents who are watching the approaching airplane.

Smith has the fairly new Cessna flying deep in the region of reverse command, the back side of the power curve, as it were, as it approaches flare height. At this speed pulling back on the yoke will do nothing but increase the rate of descent, possibly leading to a large, airplane-shaped hole just short of the airstrip. But, that’s normal for a STOL approach, and Smith smoothly applies a dose of throttle, which breaks the descent, as he pitches up to landing attitude and rolls the mains on the first few feet of the runway. Touchdown, at an astonishingly slow speed, is accompanied by the throttle rapidly coming back to idle, the yoke being held full aft to keep as much weight off the nosewheel as possible, and assorted bangs, thuds, and clunks as the mains slam their way through potholes and anthills.

Braking isn’t necessary. The low-speed touchdown and tall grass serve to bring the airplane to walking speed in moments.

Taxiing to an open area adjacent to the strip, Smith quickly pivots the airplane to face the runway and shuts down. The residents, some of whom have never seen an airplane, are flocking around, utterly unaware of the danger presented by a spinning propeller.

children in panema

Saving wetlands

Smith and his team have arrived to move forward with a project that has long been in planning. The Darién Gap is the 150-mile long eastern portion of Panama, abutting the Colombian border. It is largely made up of wetlands that have served as a natural barrier between South and North America. There is no road through the Darién. Only a few adventurers have managed to drive from South America to North America through its swamps, lakes, and rivers. It has been credited with stopping the spread of hoof and mouth disease from North America to the continent to the south and with protecting North America from invasive species and diseases from South America.

The Darién is rich in natural resources, which have fed its few thousand inhabitants for centuries and, that outsiders, under their own population pressures, covet. Illegal loggers are bold and armed. They cut logging roads into the wilderness, making off with the most valuable timber while shooting at anyone who might interfere. Gangs associated with the drug cartels of Colombia roam the area.

For years there has been pressure to build a highway through the Darién Gap, to make it possible to drive from one continent to the other despite the potential havoc to the flora and fauna of each.

The inhabitants are in the middle. Anything but wealthy, they wish to preserve their way of life. Teaming with scientists and organizations that wished to support the indigenous people, Smith’s group, CAVU, arrived to make an educational movie about the Darién, its peoples, and the threats faced. Over the course of several weeks, CAVU personnel interviewed dozens of residents, on camera, used the airplane as a platform to film stunning scenes of the pristine landscape, as well as show the damage that has been done by incursions.

In the process there were adventures. As Smith started the engine of the 206 while parked at the end of one of the Darién’s airstrips to depart on a survey flight, a group of horsemen carrying AK-47s emerged from the trees at the far end of the strip. Realizing that grabbing the valuable airplane was their goal and that acting immediately was essential, Smith firewalled the throttle and shot down the runway, directly at the source of his concern. Breaking ground and then maintaining about a six-inch altitude as it thundered toward the bad guys, the airplane presented a frightening visage. The horsemen had no time to unsling their weapons, only to spur their horses off the runway as Smith and his adrenalin-soaked crew blasted past them, pulled up to just above the trees, and, staying low for the next few miles, escaped.

The result of the film team’s work was a moving, 30-minute film that, entirely in the words of the inhabitants of the Darién, explained the value of the area and why it should be protected for their children and grandchildren as well as for ours.

CAVU, as part of its educational outreach program, then made hundreds of copies of the film on DVD, and passed them out as the crew traveled from village to village, first in the Darién, and then in other areas of Panama. It was educational outreach of the first magnitude; for the residents of the Darién themselves, who had never seen their land from above and often didn’t have an understanding of its size or importance, and for outsiders, who learned of the value of the area, the need to protect it and consequences of failing to do so.

CAVU’s policy of having its films narrated by local residents and scientists, making sure no “outsiders” could insult the residents by trying to tell them what to do, enhances the overall impact. By showing the film to political leaders and making sure that copies are in local schools and libraries, as well as on its website, the educational effect is far-reaching and on-going.

short final amazon map

A taste for adventure

CAVU came into being because Smith had a history of volunteering his airplane (initially a Cessna 180, later a Cessna 185 and, finally, what is believed to be the only Robertson STOL Cessna T206H in the world) to support conservation work in wild and remote areas.

While it’s safe to say that pilots have a greater taste for adventure than the average human, Smith is a little further along the spectrum than most. An American stringing for Reuters news service in Kenya in the 1970s, Smith learned to fly at Wilson Field, Nairobi. Not only did he get his first 500 hours of experience flying over east and central Africa, he got to know and become friends with famed pilot and race horse trainer, Beryl Markham, still feisty and opinionated near the end of her unconventional life.

Later, combining a love of the natural world and flight experience in remote areas, Smith flew supplies to Honduran victims of hurricane Mitch and made flights for LightHawk, the largest of the conservation volunteer pilot organizations, in support of its work to protect threatened waters, lands, and animals in Central America and the United States. One year Smith flew more than 165 hours and was given LightHawk’s coveted Volunteer Pilot of the Year Award. He became aware of the powerful effect that flights over at-risk areas had on decision-makers, educators, and local residents. People who had never been in an airplane and were fighting to save their way of life suddenly got a perspective that brought into focus what was going on around them. The excitement generated on each flight was contagious. The photographs and films made during the flights proved to be amazingly powerful tools; “truth from above,” that people used in their efforts to pass and enforce laws to protect their fisheries, forests, and wildlife.

Photos showing illegal development became currency in fights with corrupt government officials who had been denying such a thing existed while making sure no one could get into the affected area on the ground to see it. Being able to help scores of people as the result of a single flight that exposed such activity proved to be a tremendous incentive for Smith to try and do more.

As word of the power of the evidence and data that could be gained from a single overflight of an at-risk area got around among scientists, activists, and even villagers, the demand for conservation support flights went through the roof. Two public benefit flying organizations providing those flights with volunteer pilots, LightHawk and SouthWings, were swamped with flight requests.

In 2004, Smith and his wife, Jordan, decided it was time to establish a new public benefit flying organization with a slightly different focus: It would take on individual projects and go beyond providing flights; it would advocate for conservation and conduct educational outreach using the products of the flights. Smith formed the nonprofit organization in Costa Rica, calling it, translated from the Spanish: Conservation of the Americas, Flying to Unite. In Spanish, the initials are CAVU, which has a special meaning to every English-speaking pilot.

CAVU is also a registered not-for-profit charity in the United States.

Leading Peruvian conservationist Enrique Ortiz and former congressman Bruce Babbit on the River of the Mother of God (Rio Madre de Dios).

shooting video

The power of video

In the years since its formation, CAVU has used the intense impact of conservation support flights and the photos and films made from aloft to take on serious issues through much of Central America and Florida. The flying has been done by Smith as well as a group of volunteer pilots who have at least a commercial pilot certificate, experience with back-country flying, and a heightened sense of adventure. Their efforts are coordinated by Executive Director Michele Gangaware, a pilot and Cessna 182 owner.

In Costa Rica, two DVDs filmed and produced by CAVU are now in every school in the country. Fast-paced and deliberately kept to less than a half hour in length, the videos let schoolchildren hear other Costa Ricans explain the value of their natural resources, the importance of managing them for their future, and see videos of the rivers, flowers, trees, and wildlife from ground level as well view the high-impact images of their country from the air.

Other projects have opened up water issues faced by hundreds of thousands of people, for there is far less clean water in the world than there is easily accessible oil. One CAVU film explores the aquifers on which so many people depend, showing how small many are and that they must have time to replenish themselves or everyone in the area will be without water.

In one project, CAVU worked with scientists and the people living along the coast of Belize who are personally affected by the health of that country’s huge reef, second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The country has been dragging its feet on establishing an integrated coastal management plan. Meanwhile, as explained in the CAVU film by the very people affected, 85 percent of the reef is now dying or dead, bleached white. That has resulted in a dropoff of fishing stocks. Combined with illegal removal of coastal mangroves (which anchor and stabilize the shoreline and provide shelter and food for juvenile fish), overfishing and illegal incursions into Belizean waters by fisherman from Honduras and Guatemala, the supply of fish is being diminished.

CAVU personnel went from village to village along the coast of Belize, projecting the film on sheets tacked to outside walls of houses to show villagers, many of whom rely on the reef and fish for food and for income from guiding tourists to fish and scuba dive. The video went viral, becoming more than a tool for education; it is being used by Belizeans to pressure their elected officials to finalize a coastal management plan to protect the vital mangroves, fishing stocks, and save the reef from further degradation.

More and more organizations and governments are demanding that a dollar figure be established for their “national capital,” their natural resources. The dirty little secret about natural resources is now being pulled out of the back room and discussed openly: What is the dollar value of the rain forest, the fisheries, or the aquifers over the long term versus development in the short term? How much damage, in dollars, has already been done?

The way to get answers is through sophisticated aerial GIS photo mapping of and data collection from each area of interest. It means flying high-resolution cameras producing GPS-referenced, multi-spectrum images, both straight down and oblique, over precise routes, to establish baseline data. And then, to do it again and again at specified intervals, to clearly show trends and magnitudes of damage over time.

General aviation airplanes are essential to get this done. Satellite imagery does not meet the need: Clouds get in the way too often; a satellite may not be available in the time frame needed; its cameras may not have the necessary resolution or be able to capture the required light spectrum; or it may not have recently developed sensors. In addition, the number of Earth-imaging satellites is declining. In April of this year, Envisat, the largest, went silent. It was declared lost in May. There are no plans to replace it. While there are now 23 Earth-imaging satellites, plans call for the number to fall to six by 2020.

illegal dredging

Illegal dredging and filling of Cayo area in Belize.

landing land use change in costa rica

Preserving the future

The demand for environmental monitoring and exposure of criminal activity far outstrips the ability of CAVU and other conservation organizations using general aviation airplanes and volunteer pilots to meet it. CAVU is currently raising money to buy a second Cessna T206H, which it will also equip with a camera port, Robertson STOL, and the largest fuel tanks possible. In addition to the challenge of operating from runways manicured by machete and sleeping in hammocks wrapped with mosquito netting, obtaining aviation fuel can be a logistic nightmare. The T206H can carry 108 gallons of fuel. Running lean of peak, that’s good for 1,100 nm with reserves. Being able to tanker fuel means fewer people in the cabin, but less risk of being stranded without avgas.

CAVU has documented the effects of failure to conserve natural assets. In El Salvador and portions of Honduras, the rain forests were clear cut because of a combination of the need for cooking fire fuel, desire for a fast dollar, population pressure, and development without thought of the future. The result has been the loss of all jaguars, upsetting the lower portions of the food chain, and denuded hillsides that turn into deadly mudslides that wipe out entire villages. In Jamaica, overfishing has ruined fishing stocks. As local fishermen say, “You can’t make a living when the biggest fish is two inches long.”

The work goes on. Pilots with a burning desire for adventure and no pay continue to make a difference in the lives of people living in areas facing serious environmental damage.

Rick Durden is a regular contributor to AOPA Pilot and has been a volunteer pilot for CAVU and LightHawk for more than 20 years.

reef damage

Destruction of the Belize barrier reef is captured by CAVU cameras.